by Lorna Garano

Skimmer's feet were on the floor before he was fully awake. It had been another dream-heavy night and the last one had broken the paralysis of sleep before his mind could blink open and reset his awareness to the present day, the present moment, which posed no immediate threat. He pressed his feet into the cold of the floor. He eyes opened to the floorboards that had once been blonde and, he was sure, made of beech wood, but now they were scarred and stained, with patches of wear that looked like the clumps of veins that had appeared on his legs recently.

Normally, the dream recurred like a chronic illness, a disease like Hepatitis B, which flared up according to its own logic, creating bouts of night terror; but last night was different, and Skimmer knew why. It was the note from her—I need to see you. It's urgent. I'm sorry, Kaven. “I'm sorry.” What was she apologizing for? Disrupting the refuge he had carved out for himself, the unbroken rest that he now accepted, sometimes even enjoyed? Surely it wasn't for what had happened between them. That, everyone agreed, was his fault, and once fault was assigned it had to be measured, weighed, and then balanced with misery methodically meted out.

His dream was always a rehash of the day he was relieved of his job, stripped of his title, and told to be off campus before night classes began. This happened in front of the entire Virology Department, his former competitors. Some were unable or unwilling to control the slow leak of smiles. It could have been one of them who had turned him in. He and Kaven had been “observed” one night at the lab. He was carrying out an “affair” with a student on campus.  They had insisted on calling it that as if it were impossible for a man of his age to be single. How much had to have gone on in the background after the hearing: His picture circulated to security; orders sent to the lab director to change codes and passwords; instructions to the maintenance crew to paint his office and ready it for another professor. This was the shadow disgrace, the invisible shaming that stung as badly as the official sanction.

The terror from the nightmare began to fade, but it was replaced by another anxiety. It worried Skimmer that his dreams were just a revival of memory, that they were drained of the strangeness they had once delivered. Was it a symptom of a brain shriveling from ease, adjusting to the rough simplicity of its circumstances?

Skimmer lay back down. It was too early for anyone to arrive and between his thin blanket and the terror-generated heat from the dream he was still warm despite the cold around him. The wax paper that he had covered his window with was tinted red by the resurrecting sun. It looked like amber. Skimmer had purposely creased the paper before he put it up. He folded it first in triangles and then scrunched it into a tight ball, so that the light refracted at odd angles and he could, with a generous frame of mind, imagine that he had a stained glass window in his apartment. 

“I've reproduced myself,” he said quietly. Reproduced himself, like the viruses he had loved from the first time he looked through the electron microscope at the apanteles crassicornis bracovirus at Allendale Prep. It was the pure will of these creatures that he had loved, their singular direction toward oblivious abundance.

Skimmer softly recited the coordinates. It was how he recovered from his dreams. Seldgeville, Post-Pacification (as if that wasn't obvious), The Daccora Arms, 1488 Bracknell Street, #310, bedroom, stained mattress hauled down from a vacated apartment on the 5th floor, a man of science grown fat and old, his legs marbled with veins that had surfaced like worms after a long rain.  

He imagined an aerial view of himself, his double chin and jowls, fleshy thighs and a stomach that bubbled out and negated his waist. He couldn't explain how this soft carapace had formed around him. Since coming to Sledgeville, Skimmer ate less than he ever had. Sometimes he thought even his body had conspired in his indignity, that it had not just adjusted to, but mirrored Sledgeville, the colony where individuals disgraced, rejected, or otherwise spit out with no possibility of returning to their lives landed. He reminded himself that Sledgeville had given him knowledge—knowledge of the end, and how he had once believed that knowledge could never be bad.

Skimmer looked at the soup pot he used to make coffee. The other residents of The Daccora Arms would arrive eventually, expecting it. Morning coffee at Skimmer's had become a ritual for the building. He told himself that they congregated around him because he still carried an air of benevolent authority from his years as a professor, but he knew it could have been because he was the only one in the building to plant himself in one apartment. The others lived desultorily throughout the Dacorra Arms, sleeping in one apartment one night, another the next, and occasionally just flopping down on the faded paisley carpet of the hallway.

Skimmer flung off the blanket and stood up.

Kaven. She had cost him so much, and still his affection for her could make him giddy and then embarrassed for himself as he sat alone smiling. Kaven was pretty only because she was young. That was the first thing Skimmer had thought when he saw her staring up at him from the first row of his class on advanced viral multiplication. Unremarkable. He would have thought that about her had they not shared the lab on so many nights. She had walnut-colored hair and deep-set perfectly shaped brown eyes, but her chin was too wide and her nose curved. Age would see to it that was ugly would overtake what was pretty, but he didn't care. He even came to look forward to the day when he would be elderly and she merely old and they would be ugly together without it mattering. Maybe he wouldn't have been so reckless if it weren't for the twenty-five years between them and if he wasn't so uncertain that she would stay with him, but Skimmer felt an urgent need to maximize his time with her. When the new semester rolled around he scheduled his classes for the afternoon, so that they could stay up late after their lab work.  If he managed to keep her, Kaven would be Skimmer's first and last love.

Skimmer spooned the damp coffee grounds from yesterday into the old soup pot and turned up the propane under the burner. He opened his door. It was a formality, a signifier from his old life that he couldn't let go. No one in the Dacorra Arms took a closed door to mean they couldn't enter.

He heard her uneven footsteps. He knew they were Janice's because of the limp, so Skimmer didn't bother to turn around to greet her.



            Janice dumped a few packets of sugar on the table in the middle of Skimmer's room and sat on the sofa.

            “Sugar in our coffee? What the occasion?”

            “My niece came to visit me yesterday. She brought sugar from the cafĂ© she works at.” Janice wore a sheep-skinned line coat, which Skimmer assumed her niece had given her because this was the first time he had seen it.

            By the time Skinner turned off the heat and let the coffee grounds settle for a minute Freem, Jason, and Sasha had arrived and planted themselves on the floor. The cat, who had come to the Daccora Arms to give birth last year followed behind them.

            Skimmer ladled the coffee into the cups and then poured the watery grounds into a jar.

            “Half a packet, everyone. Half a packet. We've got to make it last. I don't know when my niece will visit again,” Janice said.

            “Someone can have my half. I always drank it black,” Freem said.  His jaw twitched and it reminded Skimmer of how Janice had laughed at him when he ran through the list of neurobiological diseases that caused twitching. How she had drily said “or it could be rampant drug use,” and then smiled with a mix of superiority and pity. That was in Skimmer's early days in Sledgeville.

            The cat stretched her skinny frame across the table. They had named her “14” after she had oddly given birth to a litter of only females. “Future 14 contestants,” Sasha said after she had turned each wet kitten over on its back and announced its sex. Fourteen's still-baggy stomach spilled out alongside her like an orange puddle that made Skimmer think of the sherbet his nanny had given him in the summer when he was a child. The cat was soon in a deep sleep. Skimmer had a strange feeling watching the scraggly animal cross over into peaceful oblivion. When he realized it was envy he stood up abruptly, took the few steps to the kitchen and washed out the soup pot.

            “Has our favorite hologram announced the winners of the 14 yet?” Sasha asked. Her lips were white  and her face was flushed from running up and down the ten flights of stairs in The Daccora Arms, which she did every morning to stay trim.

            “The only-a-hologram theory again?” Jason asked.

            “They're aging her. They're making the lines around her mouth deeper and giving her some grey in her hair. She's aging suspiciously according to plan, each year just a little more.”

            “Or maybe she's just aging and the hologram of Khensa is changing because in real like Khensa is changing like all of us.”

            “No one ages like that,” Sasha said.

            “Huh? How do we age, then?” Jason asked.

“Not like that. It happens in fits for most of us. We look young and the same an then—suddenly—overnight we're old.”

“Maybe we're just the last ones to realize we're old.”

“Jason, I've lived in Khensa's world. In fact, I was closer to it than you ever were. People like her don't age. Don't you see what their doing?”

Skimmer came back in the room.

“Sasha's theory—that there is no real Khensa, that she's just a fiction projected via holocam—really isn't that crazy. Look at how they've made the Inevitability, seem, well, inevitable,” Skimmer said.

“I'm not saying it's not possible,” Jason said, “but where's the evidence?”

“Evidence,” Sasha sniffed, “Even back when I was a lawyer that was a dubious concept. They're aging her to convince us that she's just a normal person, just a normal person who's hard work paid off, who earned everything she has. And let's not forget that no one in Echo Ridge remembers her,” Sasha said.

“That's not exactly true. There was that one—” Jason said.

“Yeah, suddenly one of them—whose niece coincidentally was picked for the 14 remembers her. Instant memory.”

            Just then Janice let out a rippling snore. She had curled up on Skimmer's bed with her hands over her ears. Freem picked up her still-full cup of coffee and poured it into his. “No reason to waste,” he said.

            Jason and Sasha giggled. Skimmer knew they were as relieved as he was that they wouldn't have a real fight. They were all too tired for it and what energy they had needed to be preserved for more immediate needs. Almost daily these two quarreled and then made up without apology. Skimmer didn't know if it was his imagination, but it seemed that the longer he lived at The Daccora Arms the more Jason and Sasha began to look alike, as if they were brother and sister. They were both wiry, both fine-featured with pointed noses and high cheekbones. Success had imprinted on their bodies and it would take more years in Sledgeville for them to look like Janice or Skimmer.

            Freem went to the cabinet in the kitchen and took out the diary. He peeled apart two pages that had been stuck together by mold. “How about starting our day with a reading?” he asked  

            They had heard it all before, but it was important to Freem to read aloud to them. Rumors flew as to why this was the case. Sasha believed he had had theatrical ambitions. Jason said it was because he had been a teacher, and Janice claimed to know that he had grown up religious and had harbored dreams of pastoring his own church.

            Freem looked squarely at Skimmer for permission to begin, even despite Skimmer repeatedly telling them that his finding the diary under an old mattress he had scavenged didn't mean he owned it. It was only 10 pages (and they weren't even sequential) and a few fragments, not really a diary at all, but some scraps of an earlier life in Sledgeville, before it had become the receptacle of human failure.

Skimmer nodded. He wanted to hear Freem read. The almost-daily readings—a page a day until they had run through them and then the whole cycle over again—had become like sermons, glimpses of a past misshapen and mystified made clear and trustworthy only because of its unofficial, accidental nature.

            Freem cleared his throat and stood up, held the pages in one hand and stretched out his arm as far as it would go. It reminded Skimmer that he should try to find glasses for Freem, or at least be good enough to loan him his when he read. He wore a sweater with lamas knitted into it and the frayed cuffs of a thermal undershirt rimmed his wrists. Freem was so hollow-eyed and gaunt that his face looked like merely skin stretched over skull. This was made worse by the long, stringy hair that shaved off the curve of his cheeks. Skimmer put him at 40, but as he said once to Janice, “Age can be either quantity or quality.”

June 5, 2054

We haven't spoken in days. Not a fucking word. Total freeze-out. How did I ever love him? How did I ever see him as anything other than a fool and a clown? And what does that make me? He's delusional. Can't imagine that his role will not be the hero. Yesterday they closed the borders. Fleeing is no longer a possibility. All those years of pretending that border security was to keep the refuse out and it was really so they could keep us in. When he heard this he called an emergency meeting so him and his friends could talk of forming a militia, patrolling the streets, fortifying the building.. The idea of fortifying our beloved, luxury apartments in The Dacorra Arms—as if we're going to take refuge in our sauna. What I joke. I burst out laughing when he heard them talk in the living room about reinforcing the walls with concrete and building a bunker in the basement. A bunch of computer programmers acting out military fantasies. Men with fingers of steel and knowledge of CAVA—that's who'll save us. I now say stuff like this directly to him. I've crossed a line. They were surprised by the news, couldn't believe that we could be trapped like animals corralled before the slaughter, and I hate them all for showing it. Realizing that we are fools should be a private matter. My contempt is no longer quiet and I have more for him and his friends than I do for the people who caused this mess. Raw hate and an easy target. I can't resist it and I know it. “Come pretend with us!”” that should be your rallying cry”—last words I spoke to him. When the freeze out ends it will be with an insult. An annihilating one. I now sleep on the couch, fully dressed. Even in my sleep I want to say fuck you to him.

Freem scanned the room. Jason and Sasha were holding each other and Janice started to stir. She sat up on Skimmer's bed, yawned, and then said, “No wonder that guy got himself shot up. Suicide, I say. Who'd blame him living with that?”

“She was living through the Inevitability. Who could blame anyone—including her—for anything at that point?” Freem answered. “This ought to make you see that,” he added and then began to read a page that was half illegible because of the water damage.

We are extraneous. Most of us now. Excess. Overflow population. Too many to do the jobs they need done. We beg for them for the chance to wash their cars or mow their lawns. I read of someone the other day who has been hired to brush the hair of the child of the Hartnoys. A hair brusher. This is what she does.

            “That was when the Hartnoys still had money. I hear one of them is even living here these days,” Sasha said.

            Janice stood up.

            “Maybe I'll go find her. See if she needs her hair brushed,” she said.  

It was time for them to find food, to make bargains between themselves and with others, to get high.

The Inevitability was how the historians described the locking down of the population, but few things were certain enough to be inevitable: the sun rising in the morning, gravity pulling us downward, and that Skimmer would go to Kaven.